Thursday, March 24, 2011

What’s in a name? What’s in my name?

On March 13, I attended a program of Torah in Motion (TIM) featuring Rabbi Avi Weiss, the modern Orthodox leader probably best known in recent years for ordaining Rabba Sara Hurwitz.
An engaging speaker, Rabbi Weiss reflected on his life in an interview by TIM co-founder Elliot Malamet.
But before I settled down to write the article and focus on what the rabbi had talked about, I found myself reflecting on a different matter – my name. Strangely, the subject had come up twice in the course of the evening.
During the question-and-answer session, I asked Rabbi Weiss if he ever felt discouraged in his work, because he had just talked about his concerns over Orthodoxy’s move to the right and centralization of power in the Orthodox world.
Before he answered my question – albeit not directly, preferring to focus on the positive aspects of his rabbinate – he wanted to know my name. It was a teachable moment for him, I suspect.
When I told him my name was Frances, he asked for my real name. For a split second, I wondered why he didn’t believe me.
But it was my Hebrew name that he wanted to know. Although I think of my English name as equally “real,” I get that, in Judaism, the Hebrew name is more significant.
People often react with amusement when I tell them that my Hebrew name is Fruma Sarah. If the name sounds familiar, it’s because I share it with the tall, scary ghost of Lazar Wolf’s first wife, an apparition in Tevye’s dream in Fiddler on the Roof.
Coincidentally, I was named at Shaarei Shomayim before the shul moved to its current location. I know that my parents chose my Hebrew name before they settled on its English equivalent, because I have a letter written by my father two days before my naming.
Maybe it proves Rabbi Weiss’ point.
• • •
The other time my name came up that night, it was my English name that served as a springboard for discussion.
Last month, TIM had a program with guest speaker Rabbi Francis Nataf. I hadn’t heard of him, but when I saw an e-mail with his name spelled incorrectly, I assumed that Rabbi “Frances” Nataf was a woman. I also figured the event would be newsworthy based on the rabbi’s gender alone, given that Torah in Motion is an Orthodox organization.
Searching online, I soon realized my error. I e-mailed Rabbi Jay Kelman, Torah in Motion founder, to suggest that he might want to correct the spelling.
“A lot of people aren't aware that Frances-with-an-‘e’ is the feminine spelling, and ‘Francis’ is the masculine version,” I wrote.
When I saw Rabbi Kelman at the Rabbi Weiss event for the first time since our e-mail exchange, he said jokingly that he was glad I was there even though Rabbi Weiss is male.
But it’s the rabbi’s take on activism, and women in Orthodoxy, that made the story interesting for me. To see it, click here.

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